I’m not good at very many things in life. I could probably count them on one hand if I was feeling particularly reflective. I’m not the best in the world at anything at all. Of all the things I wish that I were better at, wish that I’d had the drive to excel at, it’s the physical. The idea of taking the one thing that God gave me and cultivating it at its peak, of making myself stronger, faster, and more beautiful, fascinates me. I am, quite frankly, insanely jealous of athletes who, through some magical mélange of genetics, passion and hard work, push their bodies day after day and compete to prove to the world and themselves that they are the absolute best at what they do. It’s something we mere mortals can only daydream about.
So how must it feel to be prevented, by outside forces, from doing the thing that you’re the best at in the world? What kind of fire burned in Lance Armstrong’s belly when he was lying in a hospital bed with testicular cancer, promising to come back healthier and stronger? How difficult is it for Tiger Woods to regain his momentum, years after his wife and the tabloid press vandalized his character? Any time an elite athlete drops out of the game, for whatever reason, it is agonizing to watch his slow climb back to the top.
Exactly such a struggle is, as I write, playing out on the world’s sports stage. Alberto Contador is without a doubt the best road bicycle racer in the world. He has won the Tour de France three times, and is only the fifth person in history to win all three Grand Tours of racing. And yet, through circumstances beyond his control, he’s being threatened with suspension from the one thing that he does better than anyone else.
The details are almost ludicrous. During last year’s Tour de France, while wearing the yellow leader jersey, he was tested for dope. The test came back with a trace amount of a banned substance, which was proven to have come from tainted meat that he ate the night before. Not only that, but the substance he tested positive for is used to bulk up animals, which would be a hindrance, not a benefit, for a competitive cycler. Even though he was cleared of the charges, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is threatening to challenge the ruling and keep him out of the Tour this year. And beyond that, he’s already been convicted in the press. Poof, one bad steak paired with an association all too eager to make an example of the best and brightest and Contador’s reputation, built with so much skill and hard work over his entire life, could be destroyed. It’s mind-boggling.
How can he begin to rebuild his reputation? He’s followed all the rules, done everything right, and it’s still not clear whether the UCI will try to ban him. There’s no metric for recovery from the damage that’s been done to his career. He can only do what he does best, lean on his friends for support, train harder and reach, again, toward victory.
It’s that methodical ride through stage after stage in life’s battles that I, the mere mortal, identify with. For me, unfortunately, the ship has sailed. I will never be the best at anything in the world, and certainly nothing physical. But I know that through all the challenges I’ve faced in life, all the setbacks due to volatile external forces that I’ve dealt with, I’ve slogged through and somehow emerged. I’m a bit battered and bruised, and I’m certainly not the best, but I’m good, and I’m getting better. What an uphill climb it’s been.
Natasha Mayer is a political consultant in Washington, D.C.